Remembering Emily Spiegel
by Savannah Johnson
Six critical life messages:
1. I believe in you.
2. I trust in you.
3. I know you can handle life’s situations.
4. You are listened to.
5. You are cared for.
6. You are very, very important to me.
Splayed in front of us, amidst the child art-plastered refrigerator door, these messages serve as a reminder: things are shitty. So shitty, in fact, that the Mulligan-Buckmiller parents invited—insisted—that we join them for homemade pizza at their home in Manitou under the premise of “getting off campus”—restoring our sanities. So now, here we are, together round the dining room table: two roommates on the brink of mental collapse from dealing with the gravity of a third roommate’s mental collapse, two sisters on the brink of organic chemistry-induced mental collapse, two ambiguously associated friends already undergoing breakup-spawned mental collapse and two parents bravely undertaking the emotional exhaustion of their loved ones and their loved ones’ loved ones.
Up until that point, we’d all been lying to ourselves. I figured my genuine “fineness” would correspond with the amount of times I assured myself of it, but the reality was that Emily was not fine, and neither was I. But I felt I had to be, because my emotional pillar––Emily, my rock––was unintentionally ill-positioned to support me while I desperately tried to support her, and no one else intentionally positioned himself or herself to be there. We were both coping with unimaginable realities, and we both felt alone.
It’s easy to overlook how crippling your anxiety has become when no one asks how you’re doing. And if someone does, it’s relieving not to have to robotically answer, “I’m fine.” We ought to ask each other how we’re doing. Beyond that, we ought to care enough to validate, uplift and support our friends through their not “fine” responses. While at dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Mulligan-Buckmiller don’t recite their six critical life messages verbatim, they don’t have to—their loving parental gestures and questions serve the same purpose—and by exchanging pleasantries about passing the pesto or the remarkably tasty homemade applesauce, and how big the Labradoodle puppies have gotten—and so quickly!—we begin to transform our performances of okayness into sentiments of actual okayness.
Somehow, we are fine. We are anxious and tired and overwhelmed and feeling completely unsupported and burnt out and frustrated, but we are fine. These six critical life messages, while reminding us how emotionally unintelligent or absent our support systems have been, remind us of who the “I’s” and “you’s” in our lives are—who should be reminding us of these messages and who we should be reminding—and that, together, we are all or will be genuinely fine. By sitting around this dinner table, which is adorned with brightly-colored dishware and cutlery, we fulfill the cruxes of these messages for one another, occasionally saying them out loud for tangibility’s sake. The illuminations in our resigned eyes upon receiving this small gesture of love encourage us to be present. Responsive. Here. Yet, I can’t help but imagine the crazed and beloved eyes that await my arrival home and hope that she’ll still be there.
“I got these books today that you have to see!” Em exclaims the moment I walk through our apartment door. She pushes book after book towards me, covering the entire kitchen countertop. “And I got new toilet paper! It’s super soft, you have to feel! And I think I’m going to get a cat—should I get a cat? How was your day? Oh! And I had a great talk with my dad today. And I’m going to clean as soon as I finish my drawing. And John’s coming over later to help me move, and things are going really well right now. I feel really good.” This is her script; the poorly-executed superlatives cannot disguise her distress. She is not okay. I know it, she knows it but won’t accept it, and it is at this point, after many long months of chaos and instability, that I’m aware of how desensitized I’ve become. This is my friend, this is my best friend, and I’m not sure which came first: my helplessness or my exhaustion.
“…And then I have this meeting and this meeting,” she points to a calendar drowning in doodles and meetings. “Do you want some coconut mint chip ice cream?” I look up to conceal the outward signs of my downward spiral. Her body is covered in her own drawings and her clothing looks arbitrarily strewn on her limbs, in an alarming way—not the sort of characteristically colorful mismatch making it possible to spot Emily from across campus. Her head is shaven, though I haven’t asked if she remembers doing so the night before, and her eyes are chillingly lost. She has fresh cuts on her arms.
“Okay, well I’m going to have some. La da dee di da da di…” she sings maniacally, as I revert further and further inwards.
Before I go to bed, I pray to no one that we’ll both wake up to have another nonsensical conversation in the kitchen tomorrow morning.
In my dream, Emily is a body of water, transient, powerful, vital. She is a flood, a crumpling riverbed, an unanticipated disaster, a flash flood, a Helen Hunt Falls flood, beautiful but rattling, the flood that seeps into Colorado Springs basements as a result of torrential downpours that no one—no human or god—should have ever let anyone suffer with, the relief from an extended drought, a flood of happiness, chaos, spontaneity, latent tears, a flood that comes out of her own eyes, and mine, the tainted puddle you see in the aftermath and wonder what sorts of microbes are swimming around in there and whether or not they’re dangerous, the shimmering puddle on the sidewalk that you want to delight in and jump in and splash in for as long as you can before it disappears, because it will, and you might, too.
* * *
“How is she doing?” my friend asks, gazing around at the organized messes of the apartment. He’d only met Emily twice before. “It smells pretty gnarly.” He gestured towards the cat’s litter box and then towards the food experiments that had been cropping up in mason jars around the living room, evidently to gauge the sun’s role in molding rates…or something.
“That bad, huh?”
I must have reverted inwards again, but only briefly.
“We’ve talked to Res Life, and to Boettcher, and to the Deans, and to our professors. I’ve spoken with her sister and her boyfriend-ish…I don’t know what more I can do, dude. I feel so…paralyzed.”
“Have you brought that up with her?”
Things in here are not good.
Emily is not good.
I am not good.
We sip on our teas and discuss his various extenuating life circumstances.
I wish he asked me how I am.
Emily rummages around in her art bins upstairs. I give myself a headache wishing we could streak through the language house lawn or do ballet in the giant flowerpots decorating Shove’s walkway again.
I go to bed. She doesn’t sleep. Everywhere we go, even in my dreams, which my psyche has essentially disallowed me from having and Emily deprives herself of, we can be found together, reveling in our lights and love.
* * *
I walk apprehensively into my apartment, unsure of who or what I’ll find in varying states of life and see Em sitting quietly at the kitchen counter. She’s babbling: I owe her fifty dollars for paintings and plants and decorations because everything’s connected, money, sex, power, friendship, parties, and she cooks for me but he doesn’t love her yes he does no he doesn’t yes he does he just won’t admit it because I haven’t seen what she’s seen, suicide, rape, abuse, and nowhere is home and she’s cried so much her eyeballs are falling out stop stop stop I don’t want to talk about that no are you seeing the links it’s all connected don’t you see I’m trying.
I don’t know whom she’s talking to, or if she knows I’m there and I’m trying, too. I cry. She cries. Somehow though, we are fine. We are crumbling and alone and confused and scared, but we are all or will be fine. We believe in each other, trust in each other. If we can handle this situation, we can handle life’s situations, listen to each other, care for each other. Emily, I remember thinking, is so so important to me—we are so so important to each other. To remind her, I jot down a few words on a Hallmark card, featuring an angry cat saying “Hissssss. Whoever messed with you, messes with me,” dated October 4th, 2013.
* * *
When I learned of Emily’s death, I wondered what might’ve happened to that card and if she took it with her to wherever she went. I wondered if she had absorbed the words I meant so wholeheartedly, if I had exemplified them to her sufficiently. I wondered if she thought of me, if she knew how tormented I’d be—how tormented everyone would be—by her absence. I never asked anyone how she did it, nor did I really believe she had. Instead, I glanced at a post-it note in my wallet. On it, Emily had scribbled, “Feelings are temporal.” So too, I thought, was her death. It wasn’t until the one-year anniversary that I began to feel its permanence and accept that my six critical life messages would have to transcend the ephemeral span of her monumentally important life.
I want to tell you to find a roommate and/or life long friend like Emily Spiegel, but “find” isn’t the right word and “happen across” is too subtle. Rather, the Emily’s in the world are too free to be found and too far between to be happened across with frequency. They teach you the difference between being lost and being free and cook spontaneous feasts of questionably edible food, which follow all of your dietary restrictions, to celebrate the freedom of never-ending youth and the smallest victories of the day. They are the friends who permanently fill even the tiniest voids with their hugest love for you, for people and for life, who teach you that being in love with the world is nirvana. They put bread dip and salsa in egg cartons and turn gutters into gardens. They envelop you with their arms and wisdom on a daily basis and teach you that even the most lovable people feel loneliness. They are your soul’s counterpart, teaching you to prioritize honoring your feelings and validating your friends’ through example. They teach you to appreciate minutes rather than afternoons or days without feeling any sense of time or wearing a watch. They laugh when they are twenty minutes late to an important meeting, yet don’t think twice about leaving in the middle of it, should you need their support. They swim in strangers’ pick-up truck pools in their underwear, swing dance to dubstep and glue your cut-off dreadlocks to wicker animals named Kevin. They have mental mind maps of about a million directions they might like their lives to go, and you never—not even for a second—think they might not live to do it all. So, instead, I will tell you to share these six critical life messages far and wide, when your loved ones need to hear them and when they don’t. Their light and love—your light and love—could, after all, be life-saving.